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Going to the Movies in the 1950's

Saturday movie rituals were set in stone for 1950's kids in Florence. Get up, do your chores, get your movie money and trek downtown to the theater. Admission was a dime and a snack could be had for fifteen cents, so a quarter would do it. Kingstree's Jimmy Richardson, who grew up in Florence, and Florence optician Jimmy Rhodes recall double-features at the State Theater on East Evans Street. (McLeod Hospital occupies that space today.) Kids patronized double-features when they had enough tolerance to be glued to hard seats for such a long time. I stuck to the Carolina on South Dargan Street or the Colonial on West Evans.

The smell of hot popcorn dripping in butter and dashed with salt wafted to the sidewalk, drawing you in. Ticket in hand, the concession stand was next. With your fountain Coke you could might enjoy Red Hots, Three Musketeers, Milk Duds or Candy Coated Almonds. If your total worth for the morning was a quarter, it was a difficult decision: Popcorn, candy and no drink? Candy, drink and no popcorn? Split a popcorn and candy with a buddy? Good solution.

What a morning it would be! Cartoons starred Bugs Bunny and Elmer Fudd, Donald Duck, Porky Pig and Petunia, Micky Mouse, or Tom and Jerry. The Newsreel might demonstrate a brilliant new invention or feature a "Rally Round the Troops" speech by the President.

Next might come a Short. What's a Short? Well, it's a 15 or 20-minute film that could be a complete story featuring the zany antics of the Three Stooges or Little Rascals. It could also be a Cold War Atomic Bomb scare film, but they didn't always put them on with kid movies. Often we'd see the latest cliffhanger Serial episode. Serials were 20 to 30 minutes long, a dozen or so episodes to the whole story. The exciting derring-do of Superman, Batman, or the Green Hornet would alternate with space adventures of Flash Gordon or Buck Rogers. One week Buck would blast off from earth on the way to some galaxy or other, and by the end of the episode he'd be arm wrestling with alien octopi and dumped into a dungeon. Next week he'd win the wrestling match and escape from the dungeon, only to be led by an enticing beauty into the midst of a another mess. We enjoyed the Serials, but they were just warm-ups for the main event -- the Movie!

Hopalong Cassidy, The Lone Ranger, Lash LaRue, Zorro, Roy Rogers, Gene Autry -- all were our heroes in the early 50's. Plots and characters were easy to follow. Good guys wore white hats, bad guys wore black hats. Lash LaRue was an allowable exception, garbed in black from head to toe. At least one faithful sidekick always hovered nearby and could be a grumpy old codger or a naive greenhorn, usually hilariously funny. Naturally a bank robber, cattle rustler or otherwise all-around bad guy was up to no good, and naturally a damsel in distress was tied to the railroad tracks, cheated out of her ranch or robbed of her inheritance. Hoppy to the rescue! Or "Who was that Masked Man?" and his faithful companion Tonto.

Week in and week out, same sort of plot, same sort of ending. Dependable! Good guys always beat bad guys, won fair lady's heart and saved the day. Plots varied with Monday to Friday films, less shoot-em-up in the musical romances and comedies, more in the detective and war stories. Grownups preferred those.

The Carolina Theater housed a wonderfully dim second-floor balcony where friends could giggle and tell secrets to their heart's content, contributing bits of unpopped corn or sticky Cracker Jacks over the railing to friends (or enemies) below. If an occasional sprinkle of fountain Coke got added to the mix, the offender might be hustled down the stairs and out of the theater in a flash by an eagle-eyed usher.

The Colonial balcony was a favorite hide-away for boys. My brother Harold Motte remembers the spacious ceiling in front of the big brass rail as perfect for sailing improvised flying saucers -- flattened popcorn boxes.

The Colonial was in the City Hall building, smack in the middle of the 100 block of West Evans. At one time it had been the O'Dowd (Opera House and Theater). For a while after moving pictures came to town, the auditorium alternated between live performances of stage plays or traveling vaudeville troupes and movies, either silent or "talkies." Advertisements for both appeared on the same page in the Morning News Review, sometimes a flyer for a stage show at the O'Dowd on the left, one for a film at the Colonial on the right, or vice versa. It was puzzling to discover they meant the same auditorium. Eventually the Schnibben family bought out O'Dowd interests and only the Colonial name remained thereafter.

The building was set back from the street, the walkway to the ticket office flanked by a pair of ponds complete with lily pads and large, multicolored goldfish. Wrought iron fences kept our feet from slipping in, and trying to spot the swishy tails kept our attention occupied while standing in line for tickets. It was fun going to the Colonial to watch the fish, even if not attending a movie.

The theaters occasionally hosted live entertainment even in the 1950's. Lash LaRue came in person to crack his bullwhip from one side of the stage to the other. The Duncan Yo-Yo man came to town regularly, giving a demonstration out in front of the Colonial before moving inside to do fancy tricks with the latest yo-yo model. Harmonica performances, talent shows, civic and school events shared the auditoriums with movie-goers.

In the 1910-20's Florence had boasted at least six theaters: the O'Dowd, Orpheum, Imp, Majestic, Airdome and the Mirror. With the advent of film Vaudeville slowly dwindled away and the need for so many theaters with it. By the mid-1920's Florence was down to three, the O'Dowd, Colonial and Bijou. In the early 1950's we still had three downtown theaters, the Colonial, Carolina and State, and our Saturday ritual of meeting friends at the movie was an integral part of our lives. Today you can buy just about any of the old Cartoons, Shorts, Newsreels and Movies on videotape or DVD, even the scary Atom Bomb stuff. It's just not the same, though, without the balconies, the Cracker Jacks and the flying popcorn boxes.

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